Libyan woman breaks silence on torture

RNW archive

This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at https://www.rnw.org/about-rnw-media.

While Libya is looking forward to its first democratic elections on July 7th, many people still live with painful memories of the violent events that led to the removal of Muammar Gaddafi. Mariam Abdelaziz al-Rajbani was detained and tortured. At first she told friends and family ‘nothing happened’ but now she has broken her silence. She shared her story with RNW’s Karima Idrissi.

Libyan revolutionaries know Mariam as ‘Rujban the Unwavering,’ her nickname on the Facebook page she kept up during the revolution. Her entire family was active in the uprising. Her husband provided weapons to the rebels and her brothers fought on the frontlines.
When her old university friend Souad came to ask for help, Mariam did not hesitate. She agreed to store sealed crates which Souad told her contained weapons, ammunition and medicines for the rebels. Mariam also collected gold and jewellery from Libyan women which she resold to stores in Tripoli to raise funds.

Beaten and blindfolded
But then Souad was arrested and armed female militia members surprised Mariam at her home. They blindfolded her and dragged her to a car. When she asked what was happening, the only answer was a gun pressed to her face. ‘I prayed that God would let me be strong,’ says Mariam. ‘I believed this was the end.’
They brought her to a cell and when they uncovered her eyes, she saw her friend Souad and another woman activist. ‘There were three masked female militia members in the room. I could only see their eyes.’ They interrogated Mariam and she and Souad were severely beaten.

Flood of blood
Then they brought in Souad’s 22-year-old brother. He was the one who had delivered weapons and ammunition to Mariam’s house. He was covered with the marks of torture. Without any warning, the guards opened fire on him. As his blood flowed, the armed women dipped their hands into it and smeared it on Mariam’s and Souad’s hair.
The scene took only minutes but felt like ages. ‘I looked at Souad,’ Mariam recounts, ‘she was staring at her brother who was on the ground, drowning in his own blood. She was so completely frozen I thought she had lost her life. All of a sudden she turned her eyes on me. Her look was clear, it told me: for the sake of this blood, we will never talk.’ The women militia members took Mariam to a separate room to continue the interrogation. She consistently denied any rebel activity, as did Souad.

The end
When they blindfolded her and put her in a car once more, Mariam was convinced she was being driven to her death. But suddenly the car stopped, her eyes were uncovered and she was pushed out onto the street.
‘It pained me to see the look in my mother’s and brothers’ eyes when I arrived home,’ she says. ‘They had worried so much about me. My father had worry and fear written on his face like I had never seen before.’
Miriam was unable to tell them what had happened. ‘I lied to my father that they did nothing to me, that they did not torture me.’

Moving On
Soon after that, she and her parents left Libya for Tunis, while her brothers went to fight Gaddafi’s troops. From Tunis, Mariam travelled to the UK, where she started a Facebook page with news from her brothers, husband and other revolutionaries. She never saw her friend Souad again but later heard that she had been killed. And Mariam never told anyone about the scene that kept replaying in her mind.